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Steps to sustainable networking

Image: Adobe Stock / narawit

Mattias Fridström, Chief Evangelist at Arelion, highlights how the sector can make meaningful progress towards sustainable networking.

“The science is clear,” says the UN. “To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, emissions need to be reduced by almost half by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. To achieve this, we need to end our reliance on fossil fuels and invest in alternative sources of energy that are clean, accessible, affordable, sustainable and reliable.”

According to the UN, there are five clear reasons for accelerating the transition to clean, renewable energy due to it being:

  1. Widely available – The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that 90% of the world’s electricity can and should come from renewable energy by 2050.
  2. Cheap – Renewable energy is a cheaper power option in many parts of the world today, with prices for renewable energy technologies dropping rapidly.
  3. Healthy – According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2018, air pollution from fossil fuels caused $2.9 trillion in health and economic costs. Renewables carry no such price tag.
  4. Good for creating jobs – The IEA calculates that every dollar of investment in renewables creates three times more jobs than in the fossil fuel industry.
  5. Economically advantageous – About $5.9 trillion was spent on subsidising the fossil fuel industry in 2020. In comparison, about $4 trillion a year needs to be invested in renewable energy until 2030.

With data centres having a reputation for being particularly energy hungry (with a large facility typically using more than 30 GWh per year), it’s little wonder that, so far, efforts have primarily been focused on how to increase the energy efficiency of data centres and reduce their carbon footprint. This has seen some of the world’s largest data centre users, such as META, locating their facilities in the most energy efficient locations and pledging their commitment to using 100% renewable energy.

But there is no getting away from the fact that the Internet backbone will use 20% of all the world’s electricity by 2025 and, in striving for sustainable solutions, network operators need to consider carefully what energy sources are most suitable for powering the energy-hungry data centres and network that make up the Internet backbone. Key questions include: what is the ideal energy mix for networks? And is solar a viable solution?

In 2023, Arelion released the findings of its research study conducted with network operators in the US, UK, France and Germany. The report looked at the impact of the energy crisis on business networks in several key segments (including IT, financial services and banking, pharmaceuticals and manufacturing), revealing that 40% see solar energy as the power source of choice for the networks of the future. However, with the current limitations of battery technology, this option is somewhat further out of reach than many would like due to the intermittent nature of solar energy production and the fact that successful network operations depend entirely upon a reliable and consistent source of energy 24/7.

Even with the right infrastructure in place, the sun simply does not shine for long enough, or predictably enough, in many areas of the world. Until we see a paradigm shift in battery technology, solar and wind power are essentially just complementary power sources that serve to reduce the costs and carbon footprint of a network.

Leading by example

Network operators have a crucial role to play in promoting sustainable energy resources and maximising network energy efficiency. In Germany, for example, Arelion’s sites have an average power consumption of 11kW. It recently deployed solar panels at two of them, producing sufficient energy to return power to its energy provider’s network, proving that the network itself can contribute to green energy.

Across Europe, the company owns small connection sites – with amplifier equipment and other connection-enabling hardware – every 60 miles in the Internet connectivity chain. With more control available, it can source green energy from carefully chosen providers and directly implement efficient cooling and power-saving equipment.

A further important measure is the ‘early retirement’ of power-hungry equipment, replacing it with innovative solutions that cut power consumption and reduce costs through automated technologies.

Key steps to sustainability

Right now, it is clearly unrealistic to expect renewable or ‘green’ energy alone to meet global demand. But the message from experts at organisations such as the UN and IEA, among others, is clear: households and businesses should strive for energy efficiency and increase their use of renewables wherever possible. Network operators are no exception.

Despite the current limitations of renewables, network operators have a crucial role to play in promoting sustainable energy resources and maximising network energy efficiency. Consumption needs to be reduced in the sector – especially considering the current cost of energy. As an industry, there is an insatiable appetite to install new and more efficient hardware. But constantly adding hardware is only part of the story.

Through better planning, inventory management and preventative maintenance, huge progress can be made on improving energy efficiency of active infrastructure as well as replacing and decommissioning older equipment. Overall, the telecoms industry needs to get far better at unplugging in order to make significant strides towards reducing its carbon footprint.  

Mattias Fridström
Mattias Fridström
Chief Evangelist at Arelion

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